Local business closing its doors; owner cites Business Personal Property tax
By SHELLY WILKISON
“Why is it right for me to pay taxes on what I don’t own just because I can?”
For business owner Melissa Fiero, the recent decision to close her Liberty Hill business is about standing up against a tax she says is hurting small businesses in Williamson County.
For the past two years, Fiero’s Legacy Vintage Store has been home to as much “great junk” as she could manage to haul to Liberty Hill. A connoisseur of all things from the old days, Fiero has a passion for helping her customers discover the artist within by making new creations from things abandoned by time.
Restoring life to splintered wood, rusted metal and box springs, broken tools, farm implements, door knobs, ceiling tiles, doors, windows and shutters has been good therapy for Fiero. The Mississippi native, who describes herself as a fighter with a history of standing up against “the inequities of the establishment”, was looking to save her own life when she poured everything she had into a junk shop in Liberty Hill.
But fighting a tax she believes is unfair will require more than she’s willing to muster, so on Oct. 31, she is closing the door on a local treasure in part to send a message to county government on behalf of small businesses.
“It’s not about the money,” she said, admitting that she can find the $3,000 she is being billed by Williamson County to pay a Business Personal Property tax. Instead, the fight is about a value assessed on the contents of her business that she says is extremely exaggerated, and a process she believes discourages a small business climate.
In May, a representative of the Williamson County Appraisal District stopped into the store and informed Fiero that she had not paid her Business Personal Property tax for last year. Fiero said she did not receive a tax notice during her first year in business and wasn’t aware of the tax.
But in January 2015, she received a rendition statement from the appraisal district asking her to list the store’s inventory as it was on Jan. 1, 2015.
Other than receipts for larger purchases, Fiero simply didn’t have a list of every item. Further, much of the inventory being sold at Legacy is there on consignment. Because she doesn’t own the merchandise, she doesn’t keep track of the contents.
“Mostly it’s just a bunch of rusty junk,” she said. “I’ll spend a day in a guy’s field piling up rusty junk, and I frequent junk yards, estate sales, auctions. Then there’s the people who bring it in here by the tractor or trailer load. Most of it is penny-on-the-pound metal.”
Fiero said some of the junk outside the store has been in the same location since she opened the business two years ago.
In the front room of the house are the nicer items — things that Fiero says doesn’t sell, but “make for a pretty room or an unfunded museum.” Vintage items like bar ware, pottery, crystal and other collectibles encourage the shopper to explore the store a little more.
Fiero doesn’t carry high-priced items. She keeps prices low because her clientele has turned out to be “a lot of moms who don’t think they can do something.
“They’ve seen something on Pinterest that they want to do it, but they don’t know how. A big joy comes with fostering creativity. I have the knowledge to teach them how to do it,” she said.
For example, the reuse of old doors is extremely popular. Fiero said the doors are being refurbished and transformed into benches and headboards, and used as decor for homes and businesses.
“I show them how easy it is to take a door, make a few cuts and have a bench or a headboard, and how to paint furniture without (using) the expensive paint. I show them how to re-look at things.
“I liked that a lot,” she said, trying to hold back tears.
One consignor at Legacy is a Liberty Hill native and a collector of many things that he has been storing in barns for some 50 years. When Legacy opened, he helped fill a niche that Fiero didn’t offer. Today, the store has a “guys’ room” complete with fishing and hunting gear, tools, camping equipment, vintage signs and decor for the “man cave.”
Legacy began attracting the “hipsters from Austin” when she added his album collection. In mint condition, the albums are now selling for only $2 each.
Months after the visit by WCAD, Fiero received the tax bill for the Business Personal Property tax. When she saw that the contents of her junk store had been valued at $113,000, “I nearly fell through the floor,” she said.
According to WCAD, “every kind of property that is not real property (can be moved without damage to itself or the associated real property) that is used to operate a business for the production of income” qualifies as Business Personal Property for purposes of the tax. “This includes furniture and fixtures, equipment, machinery, computers, vehicles, office supplies, inventory held for sale or rental, raw materials, finished goods and work in progress.”
Business owners are required by law to file with the County a business personal property rendition by April 15 of each year. The report is based on the owner’s “good faith estimate or the original cost of the asset,” according to WCAD.
According to the WCAD website, the information provided by the business owner is compared to “similar businesses in the county for accuracy and market value assessment. WCAD goal in using this information is to maintain uniformity and equity with comparable businesses as prescribed by law.”
Standard Industrial Codes assist in appraisals so businesses remain comparable, the website states.
If an owner challenges the value assessed for the tax by WCAD, receipts or documentation must be provided to show actual value.
Fiero said she challenged the assessment because according to her records the property in 2014 should have been assessed at $15,500.
She worked with her accountant to gather receipts on the larger purchases she made through the year, and provided her tax return, which showed a $34,000 net loss, when she met with WCAD in September. But, the tax return covered the period ending Dec. 31, 2014 — one day before the required Jan. 1 inventory rendition.
“They would accept nothing but a Jan. 1 inventory list,” she said. “There was no quarter given. I was trying to be honest and responsive. I told him this was going to force us to close down because I can’t in good conscious do this (pay taxes on property she doesn’t own),” she said.
She said she questioned the type of business Legacy was being compared to and their locations.
“What I’m doing here can’t be compared to high-end antique stores, and certainly not something on the square in Georgetown,” she said, adding that the appraiser responded the store was being compared to “something less than a thrift store.”
Fiero, who has a degree in marketing, said WCAD and Williamson County should be making every effort to help small businesses stay in business. Encouraging unique and creative small business owners should be a priority, so that communities like Liberty Hill don’t turn into one big box store.
“They should have someone who works with small business,” she said. “Someone who has a better understanding of our challenges and is willing to work with us to find solutions.
“I’m not trying to avoid paying taxes, but I didn’t know about this (Business Personal Property tax). Why would you want to push out that business with a local flare? Before you know it, Liberty Hill will look like a strip mall.”
Fiero said she will pay the $3,000 she owes in Business Personal Property tax. Add that to the $7,328 owed in property taxes to Liberty Hill ISD, the City of Liberty Hill, Williamson County and Williamson County ESD #4, plus $4,000 in insurance premiums on her property. She said that’s a hefty cost on a small business open only four days a week that generates little income.
The most expensive item in the store is a white cabinet, which is priced at $450. A dresser was priced at $375. Most items sell for $20 or less.
“Maybe some people make a lot of money doing this, I don’t know. I came in here to save my life, not to make a lot of money,” she said.
Fiero created Legacy on the heels of a personal tragedy.
She and her husband, Jim Fiero, a retired Austin fire fighter, lost their three dogs and their home to fire in 2011.
It was a two-story home built in the 1800s that the Fieros moved from Lampasas to Oatmeal, got married in it and spent the next four years remodeling and restoring it. Moving the historic home required splitting it into separate levels, and the event was featured in a 2008 television program “Haulin’ House” on HGTV.
“I almost lost my mind,” she recalls, still unable to recall the tragedy without tears. “I needed some outlet to fuel my soul and this store, and all my customers who became friends, brought me through this terrible time and I want it to remain something special to me and not become a fight.”
Fiero has always been a fighter.
“Before, I fought fights on the inequity of the establishment. And you don’t win those fights, and I’m tired of it. I’ve always been willing to be the voice, and I’m ready to not be that person anymore,” she said.
A native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Fiero had a career in marketing and worked for advertising agencies that had clients across the country.
“I spent 10 years in advertising helping people sell things nobody really needs. For me, it became unfulfilling,” she said.
So she went back to graduate school and earned a degree in marriage and family therapy, then went to work in the public mental health field in her home state for some time before accepting the position of public relations director with the City of Hattiesburg.
It was there that she met the fire chief. In her role as the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Coordinator, they worked together through Hurricane Katrina, and decided to return to the Austin area where Jim grew up. He went to work for the Austin Fire Department.
She said her decision to close the store was among the hardest decisions she has ever had to make.
“A tremendous amount of work has gone into this,” she said.
Within a few weeks after opening the store, the addition she was building onto the house came crashing down during a high windstorm. The house, which was built in 1940 as part of a family farm, has a basement, a building that served as a smokehouse, and a well.
“Everything about this place has required extremely physical, hot and cold, dirty work,” she said.
At age 56, she said the new fight over the Business Personal Property tax will require more than she is willing to give.
“I know life isn’t fair, but what about a little equity?” she said.
Her customers are very disappointed in her decision to close the business.
When she made the announcement on Facebook two weeks ago, there was an outpouring of dismay, anger and sadness.
“My store was flooded last week with people expressing disbelief at the situation,” she said.
After all, Legacy shoppers don’t just come for the merchandise and the creative encouragement, they come to Liberty Hill for the outing. Many travel from Georgetown, Cedar Park and Austin, then stay in Liberty Hill for a meal and spend their money in other local businesses.
“Two years ago, I opened Legacy with no small amount of trepidation, tremendous levels of enthusiasm and excitement…not to mention a pretty good dose of ignorance,” Fiero wrote on Facebook. “I wanted to make Legacy a place that was fun, creative and budget friendly. Legacy was fleeting, but fabulous.”
The store, located at 2023 Loop 332, is open Thursdays-Sundays and will close Oct. 31.